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FCC to issue Net Neutrality rules

In a speech to the Brookings Institution today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the FCC is initiating a public process to formulate net neutrality rules for broadband network operators based on six principles:

  1. Open access to Content
  2. Open access to Applications
  3. Open access to Services
  4. Freedom for users to attach devices to the network
  5. Non-discrimination for content and applications
  6. Transparency of network management practices

The first four of these principles were initially articulated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2004 as the “Four Freedoms.” Numbers 5 and 6 are new. The forthcoming rules will apply these six principles to all broadband access technologies, including wireless.

Genachowski made the case that Internet openness is essential and that it is threatened. He acknowledged that network providers need to manage their networks, and said that they can control spam and help to maintain intellectual property integrity without compromising these principles.

The threats to Internet openness come from reduced competition among ISPs and conflicts of interest within the ISPs, because they are also trying to be content providers.

Genachowski rightly sees these threats as serious:

This is not about protecting the internet against imaginary dangers. We’re seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet’s fundamental architecture of openness. This would shrink opportunities for innovators, content creators and small businesses around the country, and limit the full and free expression the internet promises. This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined.

These rules will be very tough to enforce. The fundamental structure of the business works against them. A more effective approach may be to break up the ISPs into multiple independent companies, for example: Internet access operations, wide area network operations, and service/content/application operations. The neutrality problem is in the access networks – the WANs and the services are healthier. With only the telcos (DSL and fiber) and the MSOs (cable) there is not enough competition for a free market to develop. This is why Intel pushed so hard for WiMAX as a third mode of broadband access, though it hasn’t panned out that way. It is also why municipal dark fiber makes sense, following the model of roads, water and sewers.

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